Ceasefire brings only temporary relief to humanitarians in Gaza

Some families return to Shujaiya in eastern Gaza during a 12-hour ceasefire on July 27. Photo by: Iyad al Baba / Oxfam / CC BY-NC-ND

As the smoke clears over Gaza, the image gets clearer: it will take much more than a 72-hour humanitarian ceasefire to meet the huge needs on the ground.

So far, the truce agreed to by Israel has given aid workers little more than a chance to finally come out of their homes and fully assess the situation to identify priorities, which was impossible during last month’s daily airstrikes. The ceasefire has confirmed the massive need for food, medical care and clean water, all difficult to provide now that so many buildings and critical infrastructure have been damaged, including Gaza’s main power plant, hit by a missile and completely shut down until further notice.

This has led to a virtually complete lack of power that is having a serious impact on people’s health, with the first diseases starting to emerge, Arwa Mhanna, communications officer with Oxfam, told Devex. Some facilities, mainly desalination systems and hospitals, are being powered with generators — but even their use is limited as fuel is also in short supply.

"We are trying to avoid a public health catastrophe that's on the edge of happening in Gaza. There are areas where the sewage plants [are no longer functioning]," she said.

The World Food Program's biggest warehouse in Gaza was also damaged in the air raids, but program officer Laura Turner told Devex they were able to salvage most of their stocks, and therefore able to use them when the U.N. agency resumed its regular food deliveries on Tuesday, apart from its emergency food distributions and joint e-voucher program with UNICEF.

"We were able to recover almost everything without too many losses. Many people lost everything that they have. So we're counting our blessings," she said, adding that food items are currently going straight to beneficiaries so there's currently no immediate need to fix the warehouse to stock items.

But one of WFP's local partners, a factory that helps produce biscuits for the agency's school feeding programs, was not so fortunate. It was directly hit by a rocket.

"Like many people they are shell-shocked. They are looking at what they have left after 1 month and wondering where are they going to pick up the pieces," Turner said. "Hopefully we'd be able to help them like we did the first time, but honestly everyone is in exactly the same position. [The factory suffered] terrible damage."

Blockade’s impact

WFP is currently sourcing biscuits from another partner in the West Bank, and while the U.N. agency is trying to make sure that every dollar it spends is injected into the Palestinian economy, Turner admits it is costing them much more than usual.

The Palestinian economy has long been in dire straits, in part due to the Israeli blockade of Gaza that has been in place for years and caused inflation that hits the poor the hardest.

"We feel very strongly that it's important to invest in the Palestinian economy, but it's an expensive program. Food is always expensive," Turner said. "Every time we receive a contribution, we're very limited to what we can do."

Lifting the blockade, Mhanna argued, would be crucial to help Gaza rebuild and recover, a process she expects to take months, if not years.

"As long as the blockade is there, we will not be able to reach economic development in Gaza, because we have to deal all the time with emergencies, with very basic needs that are lacking in Gaza," she said.

Oxfam's long-term economic development programs in Gaza is still in hold, and the organization is currently only focusing on emergency response.

Psychosocial support

The truce has allowed people to leave their homes and walk out again in the streets, but the situation is so fragile that Turner said that she often catches people looking up into the sky as they wait for the parties to decide whether to extend the ceasefire after it ends on Friday.

"Honestly, we don't want to go back to conflict, but by extending the truce day by day, that's putting people at unease, because then day by day you're waking up thinking by nightfall things are going to start again," the WFP official said.

The conflict has left thousands of civilians traumatized, leaving many in need of psychosocial support. And this extends to many aid workers on the ground who have been through the same ordeal as the civilians they are now trying to help.

Wafaa Kanaan, medical coordinator for DSPR-NECC, a local partner of Christian Aid, said many of the organization's staff members also lost their homes or a loved one in the airstrikes. One employee lost her son in an airstrike that hit one of UNRWA’s schools. Others meanwhile had to witness the death of their neighbors.

“Nobody was secure. No place was secure. No office was safe,” she recalled. “You can find a new Gaza, but a destroyed Gaza.”

Kanaan, too, needed some form of support, having been witness to what she describes as “massacres” in her own neighborhood and worried for her 11-month-old baby and volunteer husband. This time, her house survived the shelling, but her family’s compound was destroyed in a 2009 attack, and again partially damaged three years later.

But Kanaan had to set aside her own needs — at least for now — as she and her colleagues are busy trying to attend to those in most need of food, clean water and medical care, especially women and children, in the little time that they have. There are areas she said that are not getting as much attention as the UNRWA schools. In two recently reopened NECC clinics, there are rising cases of infectious diseases, as well as diarrhea and dysentery.

The organization still has some medical supplies, and they are receiving additional support for this from several international partners, but Kanaan is worried for the next few (uncertain) days, when they may run out of stocks and fuel for generators.

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About the author

  • Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.